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CD: Buywell

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Rückert-Lieder (1901-2) [20:35]
Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (1884) [17:10]
Kindertotenlieder (1901-4) [29:15]*
Marilyn Horne (mezzo)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
*Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Henry Lewis
rec. Royce Hall, Los Angeles, March 1978; *Kingsway Hall, date not given
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 8287 [67:16]
Experience Classicsonline

This reissue is a worthwhile addition to the Mahler catalogue, but it inadvertently underlines the risks of vocal over-exposure, even for a great singer.

The original LP of the Kindertotenlieder - for which Decca oddly provides no recording dates - appeared in the early 1970s, at roughly the same time as Horne's acclaimed 1971 opening-night Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera. This cycle gives us the artist at the peak of her vocal powers. Horne's voice sounds round and luscious; she maintains a full tone even at medium dynamics, opening and settling into a deep, satisfying chest-based mix on descending lines, as at "erlosch'ner Freudenschein" in Wenn dein Mütterlein. She scales the voice down nicely for the softer passages in Nun seh' ich wohl, though the subito pianissimo on "Sterne" tightens. Most importantly, Horne uses her voice and technique to serve the music and text, inflecting the words with purpose, shaping the vocal phrases accordingly. Only the unmarked, unmotivated pushes forward in Wenn dein Mütterlein seem questionable.

The other two collections were recorded less than a decade later, yet Horne's voice is already showing signs of wear. The singer tends to nudge long phrases along note by note, instead of sustaining through in a steady legato stream. The top of the staff more frequently betrays strain. The chest register is still impressively "deep," but hard-edged rather than plush; the entire voice sounds thinned-out, less solidly integrated than before.

Horne's interpretive instincts remain keen, but such vocal limitations, while hardly critical, compromise the singer's ability to realize her intentions. In Ich atmet' einen Linden duft, the first of the Rückert songs, the cadence at the end of the first strophe ("Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft") sounds consoling, but the tone isn't as warm or enveloping as one wants. The curving ascents of Liebst du um Schönheit are solid, but not expansive; the "big" one near the start, at "Liebe die Sonne," is effortful, and that at "Liebe den Frühling" distinctly climbs up from below. The broad, almost symphonic scale of Um Mitternacht plays to Horne's strengths - she wasn't a miniaturist - and, indeed, she brings a nice sense of exultation to the move into major at "in deine Hand gegeben," along with some strain; there's also some iffy tuning and poky legato along the way, with some midrange pitches not quite attacked head-on.

The Wayfarer cycle was one of this singer's specialties - I remember a lovely Carnegie Hall performance, with William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony, in the early 1970s. Her Ging heut' Morgen has a nice ease and point, and she brings a good rhythmic alertness and drive to Ich hab' ein glühend Messer. But the legato isn't evenly sustained, and the tuning becomes questionable in too many places. The top is reasonably full when approached by the right combination of pitch and vowel, as at "allerliebsten Platz" in Die zwei blauen Augen; otherwise the upward leaps are strained. 

The conducting, more by accident than by design, parallels the vocal quality in each case. In the Kindertotenlieder, Henry Lewis - an indifferent baton technician, but an expert orchestral colorist - draws beautiful, plush sounds from the Royal Philharmonic. But some of the pianos and pianissimos are lost in the process - the horn in Nun will die Sonn' produces a healthy mezzoforte - and one also vaguely feels that Mahler's sparser textures perhaps shouldn't sound quite so full. Zubin Mehta, leading the capable Los Angeles Philharmonic, has a nice feel for the Mahlerian palette and musical gesture, notably in Um Mitternacht. But here, too, some of the playing is simply too "present" and up-front; the stylish, sparkling woodwinds aren't always quite in tune; and, save in the vibrant coda of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the string sound is mostly dry. Nor is Mehta's control ideal: the dramatic Ich hab' ein glühend Messer hurtles forward with insufficient rhythmic grounding; and in Liebst du um Schönheit, although the right orchestral voices always emerge in the balances, the overall framework sounds vaguely unkempt.

The recorded quality is mostly excellent, though I suspect close orchestral miking contributes to the overripe sounds of the Kindertotenlieder. In Nun seh' ich wohl in the same cycle, an excessive echo suddenly blankets Horne's top F and E-flat at "bereits zur Heimkehr schicke." And one assumes that Horne's account of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder - the Kindertotenlieder's original discmate - is, for now, lost in digital limbo.

I'll return to this as a memento of a beloved artist's career, with the Kindertotenlieder showing Horne at her best. But for a "singing" - as opposed to heavily "interpreted" - version of the Wayfarer cycle, I'd go with one of the baritones, perhaps Hermann Prey (Philips).

Stephen Francis Vasta 


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